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Virginia government disavows health chief's two-year timeline of coronavirus recovery

Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday outlined a lengthy "Phase One" process for reopening the state's economy.

Published: April 25, 2020 11:02am

Updated: April 25, 2020 2:35pm

On Saturday the Virginia governor's office, and its health department, sharply disputed the top health chief's claims made on Friday that strict "social distancing" guidelines and widespread business closures may persist in Virginia for up to two years. 

Following that claim by State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver, the Virginia Department of Health rushed to walk it back on Saturday morning, claiming that the development of a vaccine might take up to two years, but that the state had "no expectations" that the initial phase of Gov. Ralph Northam's re-opening of the state would last for that long.

The rollout "will not last for two years," the governor's office said on Saturday. "We need to keep working together to beat this disease — not spread fear and misinformation."

On Friday, Northam released what his office called "Phase One" of the state's plan to re-open its economy, which Northam effectively shuttered last month as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread there. The state ordered all "non-essential" businesses to close, banned elective surgeries at hospitals statewide, outlawed gatherings of more than 10 people, and late last month issued at the time the longest stay-at-home order in the United States, one that is set to expire in June. 

The governor's initial "phase" for re-opening the economy, his office said Friday, calls for a two-week decline in the number of new cases and hospitalizations in the state, along with an increase in hospital beds and intensive care capacity statewide, and an increase in the available supply of protective medical equipment.

Once those benchmarks are achieved, the plan declares, then Virginia will move to "Phase One," in which the government permit "some businesses" to reopen "with strict safety restrictions." The state will also continue a regime of "strict social distancing," encourage teleworking where possible, and recommend face coverings for those out in public. 

'I don’t see it happening in less than two years'

The plan released Friday by the governor's office does not specifically outline how long that phase will last. But one state health official predicted it could last until at least 2022. 

“I, personally, think Phase One will be a two-year affair,” Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday.

“There are a lot of people working on this, and I hope they prove me wrong, but I don’t see it happening in less than two years," he added. 

That astonishing prediction further underscored the changing strategy of pandemic mitigation in Virginia and the rest of the United States. In March, Northam billed the state's restrictions as a means of "flattening the curve" of the infection and hospitalization rates so as not to overwhelm the state's medical system. At the time he predicted that the crisis in Virginia would last "months." 

Virginia's healthcare system has remained relatively unburdened by the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet this week Northam extended the state's ban on elective surgeries for at least another week, even though the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association petitioned him to let the ban lapse, noting that the state has "almost 6,000 open beds at our hospitals along with 2,200 unused ventilators."

"We are concerned that continuing to delay [patients'] care while we have available capacity to address and/or stabilize their conditions will have long-term negative impacts on health across the Commonwealth," the association said. 

Northam also closed DMV offices statewide this week.

The governor's office in its Phase One plan said it also intends, at some point, to begin isolating any Virginian who tests positive for the disease and quarantining anyone who has been "in contact with infected people" for two weeks. 

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